Leaving a Room with Your Dignity

All surfers wipe out — fall from their boards, but with more or less dignity. A key issue of surfing is not avoiding the fall — all of us will fall off our board, but doing so while maintaining your dignity.

Long ago, one of my university students had enrolled in graduate school after a very successful career. He was an excellent student and a pleasure to have in the seminar. One day in speaking with him at the end of the class, he spoke of his youth, early career in public service, and his feeling that he was naive when he first went out into the world from his studies. He had left school thinking that he ‘wanted to change the world’ but that after a time he adjusted his sights to ‘being able to leave a room with my dignity’.

Of course, the switch was funny given how dramatic it was. We both laughed about his new found philosophy, but I think I understood and appreciated his point. My initial thought was that he had lost his enthusiasm and ambition for accomplishing his goals. He had too many bad experiences with people undermining his confidence and sense of efficacy. But I quickly revised my view and found his new philosophy not just instrumental but also wise and tactful. It is a measure that can be applied throughout every day of one’s life, and one that – if followed – can lead him in the right direction. It might well be a better ambition that changing the world as it gives instructions to so many actions in so many circumstances.

Clark Little Surf Photos
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Surfing Through Life: Never Turn Your Back

Surfers always need to keep their eyes on the coming swells. When they sit on their board, you’ll see them looking away from shore, keeping their eyes on the swells, before they break — either into a wave they could ride, or a wave that could wipe them out. They learn not to turn their backs.

The Sarah Palin wave hit Barack Obama and his team by surprise. They didn’t see it coming.

There are two lessons: First, don’t be complacent, imagining you know what’s coming. Keep alert in reading the swells as far out as you can see. Secondly, get back on the board, paddle back out, and compete by catching and riding the next wave. Surfers can only compete well by being in the right place and being able to catch the next wave in style — confident that more waves are on their way.

The Liberating Feeling of Becoming Part of the Scenery

When I began surfing, I was self-conscious. Would others realize I was a novice? Well, of course they would. But one day as I sat on the beach, looking out at the horizon, I realized that I was not focusing on how great any individual surfer might have been. I didn’t care who caught the last wave, or who wiped out. Instead, the surfers blended in with the waves and the sun to become part of the scenary. Immediately I could see that, as a surfer, I was simply part of the scenary for others. I added a pixel to the screen or a dot on the horizon that helped create a dynamic image of the horizon.

This was liberating. I no longer worried about how people would judge me. They did not care about me, but as a small part of a larger picture. Whether taking a wave or wiping out or simply sitting on my board, no one was judging me, watching me, per se. My surfing improved.

I was reminded of this by a recent article in the New York Times by Mark Zuckerberg, entitled ‘Brave New World of Digital Intimacy‘ (NYT 5 Sept 08). It speaks about how social networking applications change peoples’ sense of being observed or observing others. Most often, we are not the target of surveillance, but part of a new scenary in our virtual space.